Lee Jones discusses the merits of Rebel Politics in light of wider trends in the fields of Myanmar Studies and Conflict Studies.
This is Part One of a four-part commentary on David Brenner’s monograph, Rebel Politics: A Political Sociology of Armed Struggle in Myanmar’s Borderlands (Cornell University Press, 2019), in which the authors reflect on war and peace in Myanmar from various scholarly and activist perspectives. The Introduction can be found here. Part Two, by Shona Loong, reflects on the relevance of David’s book to peacebuilding efforts in Karen State. Part Three, by Kai Htang Lashi, reads David’s book from the perspective of a Kachin diaspora activist. Each of these pieces reflects the unique point of view of individual authors. Finally, in Part Four, David responds to these critiques.
Understanding Myanmar with fresh eyes
I have been following David’s work for several years. To my mind, he is one of the brightest stars in a new generation of scholars working on Myanmar, who collectively are transforming the way that country is studied and understood.
Myanmar’s 2011 transition has created space for fresh ideas and new approaches among a younger generation of scholars – including those from Myanmar itself. This scholarship maintains a strong “area studies”-type commitment to a deep understanding of place and society. But it is also rooted in disciplinary, social scientific approaches, which refuse to treat Myanmar as a special case. A new generation of scholars insists on bringing Myanmar into the academic mainstream, asking what the country can tell us about big questions about war and peace, democratisation and regime change (or not), political ideologies, political economy, gender, and so on.
Rebel Politics exemplifies this development. It is rooted in a profound understanding of Myanmar society, attained through nearly a year of fieldwork on rebel groups in the borderlands – a feat that few Western scholars have managed. But it is also rooted in peace and conflict studies and political sociology, drawing on that literature to frame the experiences of Myanmar’s rebel groups as part of a much broader phenomenon. After a deep dive into the Kachin and Karen insurgencies, the conclusion thus rightly pulls back to cases like Colombia, Turkey, Syria and so on.
Rebels must be understood as political
Above all else, David’s book reminds us that rebel groups are political entities. That this even needs restating tells us about the degraded state of mainstream peace and conflict studies after the Cold War. With the triumph of Western liberalism, mainstream scholars and policymakers have tended to view “wrinkles” in the liberal order either as a sign that more liberalism needs to be applied, or as a technical problem to be “fixed”.
This approach has often been profoundly de-politicising. The dominant tropes of “new versus old wars” and “greed, not grievance” have depicted insurgents as self-interested, rational, utility-maximising actors, with overwhelmingly pecuniary motives. Another dominant approach has been to think of conflict actors as predominantly cultural groupings, the problem being the apparent mismatch between liberal peacebuilding and their non-liberal attitudes.
Rebel Politics reminds us that rebels are, above all else, political. Rebel groups must, in fact, do much the same thing as states: they must (1) maintain elite cohesion and (2) build and maintain social support by providing security, material goods, and a sense of political community. Failure to do so can lead to elite fracturing and grassroots dissent, which can lead to “regime change” within that group.
This similarity between rebels and states should be obvious: after all, rebels are seeking either to take over the state or secede from it; they are in the “business” of building political authority. As David notes, this was obvious to “rebels” as different as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, or Che Guevara. The fact that mainstream scholars and policymakers have lost sight of this fundamental insight speaks to the depoliticised nature of mainstream scholarship. Rebel Politics decisively and compellingly sets the record straight, and does so using totally original case material.
In the spirit of provoking discussion, though, I offer two challenges.
First, notwithstanding what I’ve just said, I wonder if Rebel Politics takes the political character of rebel grassroots seriously enough. The book argues that ordinary people’s motivation for being involved is “a self-perceived positive social identity from affiliation to the collective”. When this is eroded, the grassroots get unhappy and side with dissident factions. For me, this remains too close to liberalism, theorising political activity in transactional terms.
At times, the empirical analysis suggests that what people want is individual “recognition”, “self-esteem” and “dignity” from rebel leaders. In one memorable phrase, David suggests that an “old [deeply corrupt] leader could become a good gangster by demonstrating a certain respect” (Brenner 2019, 89). But is this really true? Could the old leaders have avoided internal dissent merely by behaving respectfully to ordinary people? That seems doubtful, because truly respecting them would mean respecting their political demands.
Time and again, David’s informants express not simply a desire for “positive social identity” for themselves, but for rebel leaders to do certain political things on their groups’ behalf: to provide security and social services, yes, but above all to pursue the liberation of their ethnic group from predation and authoritarianism – both from the Myanmar state and from local “warlords”. The dismay and resentment directed at the “old leaders” co-opted by ceasefire capitalism is because they have abandoned politics for business. As one informant says of the “good gangster”, their view of him changed because now he is supporting the liberation struggle again: “His political stand is good” (Brenner 2019, 88).
Secondly: how far can this analysis of rebels be extended to other armed groups? The KIO and KNU fit the definition of “rebels”: they have clearly political, ethno-nationalist goals. But are other ethnic armed groups in Myanmar – or armed groups elsewhere – really “rebels”? The book notes the National Democratic Army Kachin (NDAK), which “did not attempt to create a state within a state” and “was focused on business rather than politics” (Brenner 2019, 78) Likewise, groups like Abu Sayyaf, the Lords Resistance Army, or al Shabab seem closer to the “greed” driven actors foregrounded by people like Paul Collier and Mary Kaldor. To what extent are the conclusions drawn in in Rebel Politics valid for such groups?
None of this detracts from a terrific first book, and the remarkable depth of scholarship within.